CUYAHOGA FALLS — Famous for catching fire 50 years ago, the Cuyahoga River is becoming a water trail that celebrates the rejuvenation of the river.

Residents had a chance to learn about the river during a presentation at the downtown pavillon April 4, when various partners involved with Cuyahoga River Water Trail initiative described their efforts. The group is a grass-roots collaborative of more than 25 organizations, agencies and local communities working to develop the concept of a Cuyahoga River Water Trail – a paddling route for the entire length of the Cuyahoga River.

A water trail is a stretch of river identified by the state as a recreational boating route. It has maps, signage and informational resources that show the official access points, amenities, educational and safety information. The Ohio Department of Natural Resource’s water trails program works to increase access, awareness and participation in water trails usage.

The partners have applied for the Cuyahoga River Water Trail to be designated in the Ohio State Water Trails Program and have proposed 21 access points along 100 river miles and manage a website, cuyahogariverwatertrail.org.

Portage Park District Executive Director Christine Craycroft, one of the partners, said they are working on access points to the river and other, smaller details. To be eligible for state water trail designation by ODNR, a map and inventory of such features is required. State-designated water trails are then eligible for funding of further improvements.

Tom Arbour, ODNR Trails Coordinator for Ohio, is helping the group meet the criteria for being designated as a state water trail.

There are 11 state designated water trails, Arbour said. Besides the Cuyahoga River, there are two others currently working on designation.

“The important piece is, we are welcoming people to the river after a long time of not being on the river,” Arbour said. “The river is thriving and vibrant and the water trail is an amazing recreational resource in our back yard. Encourage people to take advantage of that.”

Outdoor Recreation Planner Andrea Irland, of the National Park Service, said efforts began in 2011 to increase recreational activity on the Cuyahoga River. People can paddle along the 100-mile length of the river except for rough water in downtown Cuyahoga Falls, over the Gorge Dam and through Lake Rockwell in Portage County.

“The Water Trail has designated access points to put in and take out,” Irland said. “Some liveries already expect to increase when implemented.”

Area liveries include Crooked River Adventures in Kent, Burning River Adventures in Cuyahoga Falls and Camp Hi Canoe & Kayak in Hiram.

The Water Trail will be celebrated in June and continues to work toward state designation, Irland said.

“We're trying to build the best water trail we can,” she added.

No motorized boats will be allowed but canoes, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards are popular.

The Cuyahoga River means “Crooked” river and has a “U” shape. From its headwaters in Burton, it flows 50 miles southwest to Akron, turns abruptly north for 50 miles, and empties into Lake Erie in Cleveland.

Four dams have been removed as of spring 2019. Three dams, the Gorge, Peninsula and Brecksville, remain.

Sophia Szeremet, a sixth-grader at St. Barnabas School in Northfield Center did a social studies project about the river that was on display during the April 4 presentation. The photos show images of the river dating back to when it burned 50 years ago through its comeback. She said she is excited to travel on the river but will avoid the rapids.

Pat Gsellman, program manager of Akron Water Ways Renewed, said a lot of work has been done by different groups to get the river where it is today.

The river has different experiences to offer in its various sections: The uppermost Scenic section of calm waters, the Heritage through Kent, the Gorge with white water rapids, the Cuyahoga Valley with its history, and the Burning River section near Cleveland.

“The Cuyahoga River offers the most diverse experiences,” Gsellman said.

Cuyahoga Falls Mayor Don Walters said the river is an important economic development factor for the city.

“There's no river in Hudson,” Walters said “We have it all. The river is a gem. There is more recreation coming all the time, and we just want to make it better.”

Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan said it has been a long endeavor to clean up the river.

“It's good to see everyone pitch in,” Horrigan said. “Our water is important nationally and to the local community. This is a model of how things can get done.”

“This is a reversal of 150 years of industrial policy,” Horrigan said. “We're talking stewardship of natural resources.”

Spanning 22 miles of the river between Cleveland and Akron, Cuyahoga Valley National Park will play an integral role in the river’s recovery with a number of large-scale restoration projects in 2019. Projects will include the removal of the Brecksville dam, stream and river floodplain restoration projects, improving the watered portion of the Ohio & Erie Canal, and storm water management, among others.

CVNP Superintendent Craig Kenkel said the park fully embraced the river as a fundamental resource in 2016. He added that although the Cuyahoga Valley comprises a fourth of the river’s waterway, the park couldn't have achieved its goals without the others who work, own and live within the Cuyahoga River watershed.

The Brecksville Dam is scheduled to be demolished this summer, Kenkel said and the Cuyahoga River will be free-flowing through the length of the CVNP when the dam is removed.

Once the Gorge Dam in Cuyahoga Falls is removed, a white water adventure 6 miles long with a drop of 240 feet through the Gorge could be a reality.

The new Boston Mills Visitor Center will have the story of the river's transformation and renewal to share the experience with park visitors.

Reporter Laura Freeman can be reached at 330-541-9434 or lfreeman@recordpub.com

2019 commemorative events

Many events are planned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the burning river and opening of the Water Trail.

• Friends of the Crooked River will paddle the river from Geauga County to Rockside Road in different segments to celebrate the Water Trail on various days through August. More information can be found at cuyahogariver.net.

• On April 27 the Cuyahoga Falls kayak race at the Sheraton Suites will take place. For more information, see www.cfkayakrace.com.

• May 18 is River Day and residents are encouraged to volunteer to help clean up the river, remove invasive plants, or simply enjoy the river. See http://www.crookedriverday.org/ for more information.

• The Xtinguish Torch Fest kicks off June 19 with celebrations along the 100-mile length of the Cuyahoga River Water Trail and a River Rally June 21 hosted by River Network. Information is available at https://xtinguishcelebration.com/

Kent Park and Recreation Director John Iodone said Kent will participate in the Torch Fest June 20 with live music and activities on the Main Street bridge by Franklin Mills Riveredge Park beginning at 4 p.m. A passing of the torch ceremony begins at 6 p.m. and a bronze relief sculpture showing a polluted river and clean river will be unveiled and dedicated.

“It plays into all the development in Kent along the river and in the parks,” Iodone said. “The Green Trails of hiking and biking interface with the Blue Trails, the Cuyahoga River Trail.”

On June 21 the Torch journey begins at 11 a.m. at the second stop of the Xtinguish Torch Fest at Water Works Park “Peninsula” pavilion in Cuyahoga Falls with a hot dog lunch, live music, games and educational stations from 11 a.m to 2 p.m. A concert will take place in the downtown at 6 p.m.

The third stop is also June 21 with a Torch passing at 1 p.m. at the Cascade Valley Metro Park in Akron. A free lunch, live music and an “Eco Enviro Party” with hands-on exhibits will be from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Free rain barrels and free trees will be available as well as fishing and kayaking demonstrations. Visitors can take a walking tour of the dam.

The Fourth stop is Cuyahoga Valley National Park Station Road Bridge Trailhead on June 21 with the torch passed around 4 p.m.

The final stop will be in Cleveland on June 22 with Share the River's Blazing Paddles celebration at 1 p.m.